The Whitey Herzog style of baseball was capsulized in the 10th inning of a game at the Astrodome.
Forty years ago, on May 12, 1981, a squeeze bunt by Tommy Herr scored Gene Tenace with the go-ahead run, and Jim Kaat retired the side in order in the bottom half of the inning, carrying the Cardinals to a 3-2 victory over the Astros.
Baserunning, sacrificing, advancing runners and lockdown relief pitching were essential elements in the blueprint Herzog devised to make the Cardinals contenders.
Herzog became Cardinals manager in June 1980. Given the additional role of general manager soon after, he began to transform the Cardinals, who hadn’t won a pennant since 1968, into a fundamentally sound unit. Their approach became known as Whiteyball.
When Herzog was a Yankees prospect in the 1950s, manager Casey Stengel mentored him and influenced the methods Herzog brought to the Cardinals.
Though Stengel’s Yankees clubs were known for power hitting, “they based their dynasty on being the best defensive team and best baserunning team in the league,” Herzog said in his 1999 book “You’re Missin’ a Great Game.”
“Casey’s Yankees understood something our game has just about forgotten: that baseball, more than anything else, is a game of intelligence, craft and doing the little things right,” Herzog said in his book.
In describing the approach he took to rebuilding the 1980s Cardinals, Herzog said, “First, in the modern game, with all its specialization, you had to have that great stopper in the bullpen.
“Second, to shrink a huge ballpark like Busch Stadium down to size, you needed good athletes with speed. You also needed pitchers who threw strikes and let the other team make contact. Forget strikeouts. Their hitters wouldn’t be able to put many over the wall, and your track stars could run down the balls that stayed in.
“Finally, because that turf is so fast, you wanted batters who hit the upper half of the baseball, smacked it on the ground and took off. That would create new ways to get on base, stir up trouble and score runs.”
Herzog correctly concluded, “The right personnel at Busch Stadium wouldn’t look like much. They wouldn’t have to be big. They’d have to be smart.”
One of the players who epitomized the caliber of baseball Herzog wanted was the second baseman, Tommy Herr. After trading Ken Reitz to the Cubs in the deal that brought closer Bruce Sutter to the Cardinals in December 1980, Herzog shifted Ken Oberkfell to third base to open a spot for Herr at second.
In “You’re Missin’ a Great Game,” Herzog described Herr as having “a fine mind for the game” and someone who would “make a hell of a coach.”
As a fielder, Herr “was never out of defensive position his whole time with me,” Herzog said. “Fundamentally, he was such a smart player. He never screwed up a ground ball or a play that he should have made. He never made a mental mistake.”
At the plate, Herr was “the most amazing hitter I had those years” in St. Louis, Herzog said.
“I can’t think of a better example of how having a plan, a sense of the situation you’re in, can help you succeed,” said Herzog. “If there was one guy I managed that I would want hitting for me in the stretch drive, it’d be hard to pick between (the Royals’) George Brett and Tommy.”
The 1981 Cardinals were 15-7 entering a three-game series against the Astros at Houston. The opener became a showcase for how Herzog changed the Cardinals’ culture.
In the fourth inning, Keith Hernandez singled, stole second, advanced to third on an error and scored on Sixto Lezcano’s sacrifice fly.
The Astros countered in the bottom half of the inning with a two-run home run by Jose Cruz, the former Cardinal, but those were the only runs allowed by starter Bob Forsch. In seven innings, Forsch struck out just one, but allowed no hits from the fifth through seventh.
In the eighth, the Cardinals tied the score against starter Bob Knepper. Oberkfell singled and stole second. With two outs, Garry Templeton, batting right-handed, grounded a single to the opposite field, driving in Oberkfell. “I placed it pretty good,” Templeton told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Sutter relieved Forsch and held the Astros scoreless in the eighth and ninth.
Getting it done
In the 10th, left-handed Astros closer Joe Sambito relieved Knepper. First up for the Cardinals was Gene Tenace, a right-handed batter.
Acquired from the Padres in December 1980, Tenace was adept at reaching base (.388 career on-base percentage) and played for three World Series championship Athletics clubs.
“You put my name on the lineup card and the only thing I’ll guarantee you is 100 percent,” Tenace told the Post-Dispatch.
Tenace hit a double to the base of the wall in left-center. Oberkfell moved him to third with a sacrifice bunt placed between the pitcher and third baseman.
Up next was Herr. When the count got to 2-and-1, Herzog called for the suicide squeeze.
“I wasn’t really expecting it,” Herr told Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch.
Tenace said, “Once you get the sign, you try to maintain your composure. If you trigger it too soon, it’s going to backfire. If you break too quick or too early, it’s not going to work. The runner makes the play. You’ve got to time the pitcher. When he puts his leg up, you break.”
Herr decided he would try to bunt the ball toward the middle of the diamond. “Usually, you try to bunt to either first base or third base, but in that situation, if you just get it on the ground, it’s going to score a run,” he said.
Herr bunted toward the mound and Tenace barreled down the line. “The ball had a little backspin,” Herr said. “The backspin deadened it enough.”
Sambito gloved the ball and flicked it to catcher Alan Ashby, but Tenace dived safely across the plate, giving the Cardinals a 3-2 lead. Ashby threw wildly to first base and Herr scurried to second on the error.
After lifting Sutter for a pinch-hitter, Herzog turned to 42-year-old Jim Kaat to protect the lead. Kaat did the job, retiring all three batters he faced. Boxscore
The 1981 Cardinals went on to achieve the best overall record in the East Division at 59-43, but didn’t get to the playoffs because of the lame decision by baseball officials to award split-season division titles _ one based on records before the players’ strike and another based on records after the strike.